Having spent my childhood in Lahore but worked most of my life at corporations based in Karachi, a return to the city once known as the ‘Paris of the East’ for an ongoing consulting assignment some months ago has been an eye-opening experience.
Lahore has a lot going for it. For starters, it is the hub of business in central Punjab. All large business houses in the surrounding areas of Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and many other cities converge in Lahore with most having located their head offices here. In the recent past many of these businesses have been financially successful, as evident in the newfound prosperity behind the show of wealth one becomes accustomed to seeing in Lahore.
The city has recently built modern infrastructure of roads and transport which is a huge advantage to businesses. Lahore also has a plethora of business schools topped by LUMS, reputed to be the country’s premier business school (full disclosure, I graduated from the first batch. Sorry, IBA). All this coupled with much better law and order and civil administration provides a sense of general wellbeing and prosperity here. But despite all this, Karachi seems miles ahead in terms of output.
So why exactly is this so? For starters, Karachi has some inherent advantages. It is a port city and the center for the country’s financial markets. It has always been the base for multinational companies operating in Pakistan, which has helped build its work ethos as well as its trained and developed management cadre.
The businessmen I have come to know in Lahore return from work-related trips to Karachi surprised at the different business culture there. They comment on how Karachiites take their work more seriously, how much more professional and disciplined they are. All this, my Lahore friends recognize, is good for business. Many seem to be coming to a realization about the need to change Lahore’s work ethos in order to make it more productive. Some even realise that unless they transform their culture, they will be unable to compete and grow. What a waste of potential that would be.
“I want to take a group of big business owners from Lahore to Karachi for us to just observe how people work in Karachi. We have so much to learn from them”, a large business owner in Lahore told me recently.
I agree. For someone used to Karachi’s fast paced and relatively efficient work ethics – far from perfect though these may be – it can be frustrating to try and do business in Lahore. The workforce focus here seems to be on maintaining status quo and not to change for the better. Frequently during a work day, I hear Lahoris reflecting upon some inefficiency or work mishap with words like: “Things only happen in this way in this industry/sector/city”. What most find difficult to grasp is the process required to get to the next performance level. A certain evolution is required which can only happen if they accept “what got you here will not get you there”.
The obsession with large spaces; be it homes, offices, cars, overshadows any sense of efficiency or introspection on such issues. Much can be achieved with well designed, compact workspaces. Besides more value for money, such spaces improve teamwork and help with sharing ideas, building community among a team, and so on. For these reasons, most company offices in Karachi are located in office buildings, unlike Lahore where most offices are run out of homes converted into workspaces. No wonder they look more like drawing rooms than offices.
Another issue in Lahore, probably true for other parts of Punjab as well, is the lack of diversity in the workforce. There are many different communities in Punjab of course, but the ethnic base is still largely the same. This is very different from Karachi, enriched by a variety of opinions, views, and lifestyles from many ethnic and religious communities other than the mainstream, like Hindus, Parsees, Goan and Anglo-Christians.
Another aspect of diversity is that Punjab’s urban labor force includes few women. Many consider it against their traditional community or family ethos to allow “their” women to work outside the home. So, most women in Punjab’s cities don’t go out to work. The lack of women workers is a huge drawback for businesses located here, particularly in the textile and garment industry. Globally, this industry employs mostly women workers for stitching and sewing.
However, in Lahore, the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Punjab province, there are hardly any women in this sector. This is a problem because women tend to have nimbler fingers and more dexterity, enabling them to produce better quality than men in this field. Women’s increased labour force participation can also bring about positive social change as it has in Bangladesh and other such countries where more women are out working and earning, helping to uplift their family situations.
Given all these issues, how can Lahore change its work culture to make it more efficient? To begin with, business owners in Lahore need to become open to new ideas — accepting different perspectives even in their traditional businesses. They need to eschew traditional mindsets, challenge the status quo, and change compensation structures to reward creativity and innovation besides just short-term profitability. In this aspect, Lahore business groups need to learn not just from Karachi but even look at cities abroad.
Punjab may not have the diversity that helps generate creativity, but its business community could take the lead in changing this, for example by opening training institutes for women. Training women and paying them well will encourage families to let them go out and work. The flip side of this of course is that women end up bearing the double burden of domestic work as well as work outside the home – something that begins to change in the next generations with increased awareness as they bring up their children differently.
Success won’t come overnight. But to move towards making Lahore, and other cities in Punjab more productive, those with a stake in it must initiate change in their work ethics and culture. The very few companies in Lahore who have realized these things have already started seeing advantages accrue to their businesses and are trendsetters. What will it take for the rest to follow? For the sake of the region’s development and economy, the transformation must begin soon.